Arts & Culture
3:19 pm
Mon January 27, 2014

Brooks Gremmels, Who Transformed A Small East Texas Town, Has Died

A man who rebuilt a tiny East Texas town died Sunday.

Brooks Gremmels transformed Ben Wheeler, turning the Van Zandt County town into a thriving arts mecca. He and his wife, Rese, created art galleries and shops, as well as two restaurants that feature live music, and a library that gives away free books to kids.

He had pancreatic cancer, the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported. He was 70.

Gremmels and his wife convinced artisans, including a hat maker, an embroidery expert and a master knife maker, to relocate to Ben Wheeler by offering them space, rent-free. You can hear live music and eat great food at Moore’s General Store or the Forge bistro. Gremmels created a non-profit foundation for Ben Wheeler, and obtained a federal grant to install a sewer system.

Gremmels was as generous with humor and fun as he was with money. He had Ben Wheeler declared the Feral Hog Capital of Texas, then he created a huge party to celebrate what others find a nuisance.  And boy do they celebrate – there’s a hog queen, a parade with hog floats, and a pig bus. Instead of candy or Mardi Gras beads, plastic pig noses fly into spectators hands.

KERA's Jerome Weeks profiled Gremmels in 2009 and KERA's Anne Bothwell caught up with him again last year.

(Read Anne's remembrance on KERA's Art&Seek.)

“You have bluebird festivals and bluebonnet festivals, but there wasn’t a wild hog festival,” Brooks Gremmels told KERA. “I think virtually every county in the state has problems with these feral hogs. We just decided to make some lemonade out of the lemons we were given.”

"Recapture the sense of community"

Brooks Gremmels always said he didn’t start out with a grand plan for Ben Wheeler. He’d owned a data service company. He’d been a motorcycle racing champion, inducted into the Central Motorcycle Roadracing Association's Hall of Fame. He made his fortune in oil and gas. When Gremmels and his wife, Rees, decided to retire, they chose Ben Wheeler. It wasn’t far from Tyler, where he was born.

“The buildings were vacant," he said. "Roofs were gone. Doors were missing and the weeds were growing through the sidewalk. So we went to work to see if we could recapture the sense of community that must have existed before.”

Gremmels told KERA that more has changed in Ben Wheeler in the past five years than in the previous 50.

“You can find a little bit of everything an hour-and-15 minute drive from Dallas,” he said. “You just think you’re in another world. You come across this tiny little town that’s all new. You can hear music when you roll down the window and [see] art when you get out of the car.”

"I was in such a hurry"

But why go to the effort of creating a town?

“I needed a place where I could go for a beer,” Gremmels joked.

Actually, he wanted to “see if we could recapture the sense of community that must have existed before.”

Gremmels knew he was ill last fall.

“I’ve got some health issues that have come into play," he told KERA last year. "As I look at that, I begin to understand why I was in such a hurry to get this stuff done. There was a real reason for doing this, I just didn’t understand it at the time. But as it is, it’s all just worked out really well.” 

Read more about Gremmels here.